NFL fighting head injuries with technology

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 7, 2011; 12:12 AM

The NFL is turning to technology to both measure and mitigate pro football's effect on players' brains, pushing into unexplored territory as officials try to protect personnel from the violence of the sport.

But even as the league cracks down on helmet-to-helmet hits and subjects concussed players to more rigorous medical scrutiny, NFL officials and experts acknowledge they don't yet have the data they need to fully understand what causes concussions. If they can, with the help of technology, gain a greater understanding in that area, they hope that will help them better protect players against head injuries.

"We see impacts with an enormous amount of energy and the player is not concussed," said Richard Ellenbogen, co-chairman of the NFL's head, neck and spine committee. "And then we see a hit with less energy and the player is concussed. We have not been able to match the two. . . The goal is to see if we can correlate the impacts with the outcome in terms of concussion."

That goal will soon lead to placements of devices known as accelerometers in players' helmets to measure the force of hits to the head they absorb. The NFL committee plans to test three types of the devices - versions used in helmets, earpieces and mouthpieces - for possible use by players beginning next season.

After a particularly violent weekend of head-to-head collisions in October, the NFL announced it would strictly enforce its rules that prohibit some hits to the head and began issuing hefty fines to players who violated them. Increasingly concerned about the long-term effects of head trauma, the NFL last year modified its policies for the treatment of a player who suffers a concussion, prohibiting his return to a subsequent game or practice without clearance from an independent neurologist.

Measuring the force of blows to the head won't immediately lead to a concussion-prevention application, but Kevin Guskiewicz, a committee member and chairman of the department of exercise and sport science at the University of North Carolina, said the information-gathering nevertheless should begin as soon as possible.

"We are currently not where we'd like to be in understanding what an 80-G impact means relative to a 40-G impact. . . . My point has been all along if we don't start somewhere - like now - we'll never know," Guskiewicz said.

The data also could be used to teach players to better protect themselves, Guskiewicz said.

"One of the things I'm hopeful we can do - one of the things we do at UNC - is use the technologies, like the accelerometer, to help change behavior," Guskiewicz said.

"We sit down with players who are taking hit impacts and say, 'Look at what you're doing. You're lowering your head on certain types of hits.' I think technologies can be used in a preventive role as well."

Softer impact

The goal of prevention has spurred a wide range of experiments with new materials for helmets. For example, the Gladiator, eight years in development, incorporates a soft outer shell made of polyurethane foam, approximately a half-inch thick, over a hard shell helmet.

"It didn't make sense to put hard shells on the outside of helmets," said industrial designer Bert Strau, founder of Pennsylvania-based Protective Sports Equipment, which makes the Gladiator. "They don't have much give. We don't use hard bumpers [on vehicles] any more. They're soft."

The helmet also includes several layers designed to manage the energy of hits. It has a face mask made of a lightweight composite material on shock mounts so it can move independently of the helmet.

"With the steel face mask, you're putting a lot of weight out forward, with a drag on the neck," Straus said. "This is light, so you don't have that. It has some give on impact."

According to Straus, laboratory testing showed that a collision involving only one soft-shell helmet, rather than two hard-shell helmets, reduced acceleration by 20 to 25 percent.

"Each time you got away from softness," Straus said, "that raised the severity of the impact."

When defensive back Mark Kelso was sidelined by a concussion in 1989, early in his career with the Buffalo Bills, the team's training staff forced him to begin wearing a ProCap, a soft shell worn outside his helmet.

"It really came down to an ultimatum to me: 'We're not going to clear you to play unless you wear it,' " Kelso said. "I was married. We had our first child. There was no way my wife would have let me play. There was no way I'd play if it was going to cause long-term health problems. Post-career quality of life was important to me."

Kelso agreed and played five more seasons for the Bills. He suffered one more concussion, he said, when he took a knee to the head from an opposing player. At Kelso's suggestion, Straus's company, which made the ProCap, incorporated the foam padding into the helmet, leading eventually to the Gladiator.

Nothing is guaranteed

According to people who participated in an NFL conference on helmet safety in December, opinion was divided about whether any significant developments in helmet design are on the horizon. Some experts are convinced it will be quite some time before helmets improve to the point that they make any discernible difference in the rate and severity of concussions. And no helmet will make the sport completely safe, experts said.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) this week asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate what he called "misleading safety claims and deceptive practices related to the sale of new helmets and the reconditioning of used football helmets."

In his letter to FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz, Udall urged the commission "to take appropriate action if any football helmet manufacturer or reconditioner is engaging in any false and deceptive practice" by making unsubstantiated safety claims in advertising to the public, particularly in ads for youth football helmets.

Helmet makers say they are attempting to find ways to reduce the chances of a player suffering a concussion, but aren't trying to convince consumers that any product removes the risk of suffering a head injury in football.

Straus said he expects the Gladiator to gain the necessary approval from the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment and be on the market in 2011. That would make the helmet available to NFL players. Riddell is the league's officially licensed helmet maker, but a player can wear any NOCSAE-certified helmet.

"I think the role technology can play in this has been undervalued," Straus said. "I think we're just scratching the surface. . . . We are an alternative. Most helmets are pretty much alike. We are willing to share our technology."

One company, Unequal Technologies of Kennett Square, Pa., believes a composite material it manufactures that is used in bullet-resistant vests for the military could be used in future helmet design. Rob Vito, the company's president, said the material disperses the force of a hit so that less reaches the head.

Vito said the company expects the material - called Blue Steel when used in helmets - to be used by one manufacturer next year. It also plans to sell a cap made of the material that can be worn beneath a helmet.

And John Joannopoulos, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told doctors and scientists at the NFL helmet conference last month that he is overseeing research into the development of a material that might absorb enough energy to protect the head from injuries far more effectively than any current material - for football players and troops alike.

Said Kelso, now a board member of Protective Sports Equipment: "I want to see kids afforded an opportunity to play the game, which I think is a pretty neat game, without having to experience harmful effects. If it is a better product, I'd like to see it on every kid."

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